Book: Good Enough

Good Enough
Paula Yoo
2008 (HarperCollins)

Patti Yoon is in her senior year of high school and working through the process of trying to get into HARVARDYALEPRINCETON (and a host of other top rated colleges). Her parents have extremely high expectations and make it very clear that not meeting them will not only disappoint them, but also let down the entire Korean church they belong to. Talk about pressure! Patti’s chief pleasure is in playing her violin, but even that has strings attached since she’s expected to maintain her position as concertmaster of the All-State Youth Orchestra and practice hours every day. And then there’s that cute boy she met at the All-State auditions…

This book did a great job of describing the pressure kids often face when dealing with the college application process in a very realistic way. Not only did Patti feel the pressure and get frustrated by it, but she also bought into it even when she sometimes realized that it was ridiculous. The pressures came from everywhere, too: parents, friends, colleges themselves, even Patti herself. I found it kind of interesting that with all the focus on academic success, school itself was so completely absent from this story.

One of the aspects of the book that I found most interesting was that perhaps the thread tying it all together was the college application process itself. Everything from writing applications to taking SATs to college interviews and beyond was covered. I was impressed by the thoroughness of this and how clearly the stupidity of it all was shown, without Patti ever seeming to realize that stupidity (as teenagers deep in that pressure-filled process rarely do). I wondered how this aspect of the book would read to a teenager going through that process. I haven’t been there for a long time, so my perspective has shifted a bit. I thought it was a brilliant part of the story and my guess is it would work just as well on a teenager, but on a different level.

The friendship that Patti built with Ben over the course of the book was sweet and delightfully complex. The believability of the relationship was such that it actually made me sad to read that they lost touch after high school (although that was, again, quite believable). I liked that Ben brought something of a voice of normalcy to Patti’s life, even if he wasn’t necessarily any more rational or normal than any other part of her world. It was like he was the voice of the non-overpressured, overstressed teenager and she got tastes of that kind of life through him, even if she never really did learn that much about him. It created an interesting element to the otherwise very academic, college-focused story.

I really enjoyed this book. I thought that the writing could have been stronger, but it definitely stood on it’s own two feet and was absolutely a pleasure to read. I would certainly recommend this book, but for me it was more interesting as something to think about than as a book to read for pure pleasure. There was meat here and while it was fun to read, I don’t think it is a book for just entertainment but, rather, one that says a lot about what our society thinks is important and does to it’s teenagers.

- Publisher’s Description

- Readergirlz September Issue, 2008

- Paula Yoo’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Just Listen

Just ListenJust Listen
Sarah Dessen
2006 (Viking/Penguin)

Annabel is the sort of girl who hates confrontation. She is quiet and generally keeps her head down. Her family is full of drama and her social life has fallen apart because her best friend has dropped her because of events from a few months back. At the beginning of the school year she feels incredibly alone. Enter Owen, a boy who is no stranger to confrontation and insists on always telling the truth. He is obsessed with music of all kinds and when he and Annabel begin to be friends, he quickly begins to share his love of music with her. Annabel is thrilled to have such a good friend, but she ultimately has to save herself.

This book is extremely character driven. Very little action occurs throughout the book, but a lot happens. I was initially very put off by the frequent long flashbacks that seemed to drive the book (it felt like the story hadn’t even started until the fifth chapter), but by the end I appreciated all the information. I think that all the flashbacks were necessary, but I think Dessen probably could have spaced them out differently and achieved a slightly more balanced feel to the book. The fact the characters in this book were so strong is really what made it work. I wanted to know more about Owen every time Annabel encountered him, but since the story was from Annabel’s point of view I was restricted to what she knew. Annabel herself was interesting. I can’t say that I always liked her, but I think that’s part of why she worked for this particular story. I would have had a hard time swallowing this story if the main character hadn’t been believable, which was tricky with this plot, but Dessen pulled it off beautifully. I may have been horrified by Annabel’s actions sometimes and just wanted to sit her down and lecture her about what she should have done, but I never disbelieved that she would have acted exactly the way she did.

It’s hard not to see the obvious parallel between the plot of this book and the plot of Speak, but they are fundamentally very different. Both looked at similar situations in believable ways where the characters acted very differently. I wouldn’t say that this is a book I wish every high schooler would read, although I’m tempted to say that about Speak sometimes, because the story here didn’t make it as necessary a story to have read. I do think that it was great, strong story and I could absolutely see it being one that some women find hauntingly close to home, the very fact of which is important for the rest of us to understand. This was well written and well presented, but it just didn’t have the timeless, necessary feel that a required read usually does. Nevertheless, I’m quite glad that someone wrote this story.

This is a powerful, enjoyable book. It deals with several tough topics in a really well-crafted story. I wish the structure had been a little different so that it was easier to get into, but that seems like a small complaint for such a good book. I would absolutely read other books by Sarah Dessen and I would unquestionably recommend this book. It was a good read and told a story that I think needs telling. I hope that it gets the readership that it deserves!

- Publisher’s Description

- Readergirlz issue 14 (March 2008)

- Sarah Dessen’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Sold

Patricia McCormick
2006 (Hyperion)

This is the story of Lakshmi, a Nepalese girl who had a happy, but difficult life on the side of a mountain with her mother and little brother until her lazy, gambling stepfather sold her away. She is taken to the big city in India and put in a brothel. Her life becomes one entirely of fear and pain as she works to pay for her way home amid a household full of girls without hope for a future or a life other than the one they have no matter how hard they work. It’s a heartbreaking story that is all the more painful for the fact that although Lakshmi is fictional, thousands of girls just like her do really exist and are living her life every day. McCormick did an amazing job in telling this story.

I was incredibly impressed with every inch of this story. From Lakshmi’s wants and fears and hopes, which were so real and so hard to read at times, to the incredibly detailed and textile descriptions of everything from the mountain Lakshmi grew up on to the floors of the brothel kitchen. The descriptions of people were particularly intense. Their hair was described, the colors and shapes and implied emotions in their faces, the fabric and draping of the clothes they wore, even their shoes! In some cases, I almost wished the descriptions hadn’t been quite so vivid, but ultimately it was that vividness that brought the world and the characters and their suffering and hope to life.

One of the things I found most interesting in this book was the portrayal of the men in it. Almost all the male characters were pretty horrible, as you might expect from such a story, but there were a few that were not. What was interesting was that both of the male characters who were nice and had a presence in the book beyond a page or two were young – the son of one of the other women and a boy who sold them tea each day. Few of the adult men got to be anything but horrible. The few who did, made lasting impressions on Lakshmi but never returned. I started to wonder after a while where all the nice men were or if the impression I was supposed to get was that there weren’t any in that part of the world, which wouldn’t really be true either. On the other hand, that probably is what Lakshmi started to think (if she thought about it at all), and I can see why perhaps McCormick would have wanted the reader to share her impressions.

This was an amazing book that really does a great job of shedding light on an ongoing tragedy that much of the world largely ignores. Lakshmi was really one of those characters that stays with you long after you’ve stopped reading. Sold makes the reader think and maybe even want to help. I would definitely recommend this book. It’s an amazing read and is absolutely worth it.

- Publisher’s Description
- Readergirlz issue 8 (September 2007)
- Patricia McCormick’s Website
- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Ironside

Holly Black
2007 (Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster)

Ironside is the third part of Holly Black’s story about Kaye, a modern faery. I have not read the first two, but I think I followed this one pretty well just the same. At this point in the story arc Kaye has pretty well accepted that she is a pixie and is coping pretty well, but her boyfriend’s imminent coronation in the Unseelie court complicates her life a bit. Kaye travels around with her friend Corny and their new companion, Luis, a lot in this book. They visit the city, the Seelie court, even an island off the coast of New York. Through it all, there was a fascinating quest and a lot of very interesting introspective teen angst.

This was one of the most interesting fantasy books I’ve ever read for character development. I wasn’t wild about Kaye, but she was definitely interesting and certainly full of personality! I liked that her personal shortcomings, however irritating they may have been to me, were very appropriate for the story and consistent – even the support characters were very aware of them. It showed that the author really knew her characters well – well enough to know how they knew each other. Some of my favorite parts were the interactions between Corny and Luis. I actually found Corny far more interesting than Kaye and it is because of him that I really want to go back and read the first two books to find out what happened!

I found the faeries very interesting. In some ways they seem like they should break gender rules, but they never seemed to break them enough. There were hints of women warriors and foppish men, but pretty much all the characters we saw were either very feminine women or very masculine men. Many of the women were feminine in a dragon lady kind of way, but that is still a very feminine trope. This all may have been intentional. Black kind of set up her faeries as living, breathing symbols of various types, so maybe they were supposed to fit those stereotypes to reinforce their unreality. The effect was certainly there! If that was the design, it most definitely worked!

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I spent a lot of time being exasperated with Kaye, but I never got frustrated with the book. It was very much a fun romp in a great world. Holly Black clearly knows a lot about faery lore, since much of her world is pulled from classic traditions, and I found that aspect of it particularly interesting. I would definitely recommend this book! It isn’t what I’d want to read every day, but it was absolutely worth it and I definitely plan to pick up the first two books in the series and read them at some point!

- Publisher’s Description
- Readergirlz issue 7 (August 2007)
Holly Black’s Website
- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Goy Crazy

Goy CrazyGoy Crazy
Melissa Schorr
2006 (Hyperion)

This is the story of Rachel Lowenstein and her romance with Luke Christiansen. Rachel is Jewish and is pretty sure her parents want her to date (and eventually marry) and nice Jewish boy. This has never been an issue before because she’s never really dated before. That all changes when Luke steps into the picture. As his name suggests, he’s not Jewish. He doesn’t even go to the same school Rachel does. He attends St. Joseph’s Prep. – a Catholic school. Be that as it may, Rachel likes him and jumps at the chance to go out with him, even if it means hiding it from her parents.

Goy Crazy is a really interesting and well done book. I typically don’t really enjoy teen school/dating stories, but this one was so smart and so interesting on many different levels (not to mention very, very funny) that I couldn’t help but enjoy reading it immensely. Schorr handles the religious issues really well and paints a very realistic picture of a teenager struggling with the constraints of religion. What’s nice about it is that Rachel never loses her faith, she’s just frustrated with her religion and what she perceives to be her parents’ strict wishes based on it. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t question things, but she doesn’t waver. There’s a big difference, although it’s not a distinction I’ve seen made in fiction very often.

Schorr’s writing is fantastic. Rachel has a very definite voice that drives the book. She’s funny and real and draws you in. You want things to work out for her because Schorr writes her such that you almost feel like she could be your friend. And like with real friends, you occasionally see train wrecks coming and can’t do anything about them! The good thing is that I never lost faith in Schorr, I always knew that Rachel would end up ok no matter what trouble she got herself into because she was in the hands of such a talented writer. I would definitely pick up another book by Schorr based exclusively on her writing.

My one issue with the book was that the story was slightly predictable. Some of that was because of the cluelessness of the character, but some of it was just the way it was set up. This appears to be Schorr’s first book, so perhaps that’s an issue that will get better with time.

This was a really fun, funny book that dealt smartly and interestingly with some rather heavy issues. It’s not every book where the teenage heroine is worried that she won’t get to be buried in the cemetery her family is in because of a boy! I would definitely recommend this book. It’s a great read!

- Publisher’s Description
- Readergirlz issue 6 (July 2007)
- Buy it from Amazon

- Melissa Schorr’s Website

Book: Dragon’s Keep

Dragon’s KeepDragon’s Keep
Janet Lee Carey
2007 (Harcourt)

This book tells the story about the princess who would fulfill one of Merlin’s prophecies: to end war with the wave of her hand. She has finger like a dragon’s claw which her mother is so ashamed of and horrified by that she makes the girl wear golden gloves to hide her hands at all times, saying that only her husband may ever see a princess’ hands. Rosalind has always gone along with this, but as she begins to learn more about her mother and herself, she starts to wonder about it more and more. The island that she is destined to be queen of is plagued by a dragon who indiscriminately kills the people, but a ship arrives to bring them (supposed) salvation. This ship brings much more than Rosalind could have possibly expected. Her story is complicated, fascinating and surprisingly human.

This is a really amazing fantasy novel. It is an incredibly realistic telling of an incredibly fantastical situation. Rosalind is one of the most real and sympathetic fantasy heroines I’ve found in a very long time. I really came to love who she was and be fascinated by Rosalind herself, and not just her story or her role in the prophecy. She was very human and very much a teenager who grew up quickly (which makes perfect sense for the time, place and situation she was in). Carey did a great job. She also did a marvelous job of portraying the world of the island. I loved that she showed us the common people and castle servants as realistically as she did the royal family, it added a lot to the story. Even the dragons were very real, understandable, if extremely un-human, characters. I was incredibly impressed.

One of the major issues in this book is the mother-daughter relationship of the main character and her queen-mother. They have a far from healthy relationship, but it is one that is definitely real. You can see exactly why the mother does what she does and how things got to be the way they are. Carey brilliantly counterpoints it with the relationship we briefly see between Rosalind’s mother’s former maid, Ali, and her daughter, Kit, which is loving and close. This is definitely one of the strongest elements of the book.

I was incredibly impressed with this book and I enjoyed in immensely. I highly recommend it. It’s a great story and a great fantasy. Carey did a great job and I will definitely look for more of her books!

Book: The Phoenix Dance

The Phoenix DanceThe Phoenix Dance
by Dia Calhoun
2005 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In The Phoenix Dance Dia Calhoun retells the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (or “The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces”, depending on the collection you’re looking at) from the perspective of the royal shoemaker’s apprentice. Phoenix, the apprentice heroine, is passionate about designing and making shoes (almost to the exclusion of anything else much of the time) and she has a lot of talent, but she also has a disease that makes it hard for sometimes. She has periods where she’s in the Kingdom of Brilliance and deliriously happy all the time. Everything is bright and beautiful and inspiration spills out of her, often faster than she can keep up with it, but eventually she reaches a breaking point and topples over into the Kingdom of Darkness where she is miserable, almost to the point of wanting to die sometimes. She can’t do or think about anything in this state. A treatment is eventually found, but not one she likes. She begins to see parallels between what she experiences and what the dancing princesses are going through and uses that to solve the mystery. It’s a very interesting approach and works extremely well.

Although the Bipolar aspect of the book originally surprised me quite a bit, it actually was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. I really felt that it worked wonderfully to explain what is often a fundamentally confusing story. The fact that the author was able to use her own experiences to write the character’s experiences so convincingly and interestingly helped enormously. It really felt like she got the whole picture, not just pieces of it, from Phoenix’s personal struggles to her frustrations with the medications to even the prejudices she faced everyday in society, it was very real. And it all worked really well with the fairy tale, which was very impressive since often this type of thing doesn’t mesh well with fairy tale stories.

One of the things that I really loved about this book was the interesting world it was set in. Calhoun didn’t actually explicitly explain a lot of things, but I gathered that the kingdom is matriarchal which is fascinating simply because of it’s rarity in fantasy literature (or really any literature). When we do see matriarchal worlds they tend not to feel natural and often seem to exist simply to make a point, but this was so subtle I am still not entirely certain of it (despite the fact that the book made it clear the crown is passed down through the female line and Phoenix’s last name was passed down through the women in her family, not the men). Simply the fact that Calhoun was able to create a world where that felt so simple and natural, where I didn’t even think about it until most of the way through, despite numerous clues, was wonderful! What a fabulous thing for girls and for feminist literature in general! What a great thing just for the variety of literature – more worlds that are realistic and dynamic, yet truly different in some way from what we’re used to! I was incredibly impressed.

I loved this book. Dia Calhoun’s writing was fantastic and her story completely captured me. I couldn’t put the book down once I picked it up and I was incredibly sad when it ended, despite the ending, just because I had to leave that wonderful world! I will definitely be reading more of her books in the future! The Phoenix Dance is well worth reading and I highly recommend it!

Book: On Pointe

On PointeOn Pointe
Lorie Ann Grover
2004 (Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster)

Clare is a ballet dancer and has been training to be one pretty much all of her life. She dreams of joining City Ballet as one of the 16 corps dancers and practices as hard as she can for the auditions, but there is a problem – she’s getting too tall. Throughout this book Clare deals with her own struggle with her height interfering with her dreams and watching the struggles that her classmates go through for their dreams of being dancers. She also deals with family struggles and the challenges of coming to terms with change you weren’t expecting. It’s a great book about accepting yourself and dealing with things as they come.

This book is written in a poetry format and that works incredibly well for it. Not only does it wonderfully highlight the internal struggles Clare is going through (a mom that just doesn’t get it, life not being fair, body image consciousness, etc.), but it also gives the book an almost musical rhythm that fits in nicely with the dancing theme. After putting this book down I often felt like dancing or stretching myself and a big part of that was the effect of the free verse format! It was a great choice for Grover to make for this book.

Clare was a wonderful character. She was real and three-dimensional. Sometimes I just wanted to shake her for thinking things that were just so unhelpful, but they always made sense for her to be thinking (someone in her position really might think that way, whether I like it or not!). I liked that she was so open minded about so many things, but not so much so that it wasn’t believable. She was curious about Grandpa’s religious faith, but she couldn’t get past her belief that the adult class were losers. Grover did a good job with making her consistent, which I really appreciated.

Ballet is such an alien world to me, but Grover did a great job of making it very real and very three-dimensional, but not so foreign that I couldn’t understand it. It felt authentic without feeling alien. I don’t know how authentic it really was, but I assume she did a good job with it since she was a dancer herself! She didn’t make me wish I was a ballet dancer by any means, but she made the world very real, and that’s important.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It was incredibly well written and the characters were wonderfully real. The emotions were raw and real. I highly recommend this book. It is a marvelous teen read and a great character study. Grover did a great job and I look forward to more from her.

Book: Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)

Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies)
Justina Chen Headley
2006 (Little, Brown & Co.)

This is the story of Patty Ho and the summer after her freshman year of high school. Patty is half-Taiwanese and half-white, which causes her all manner of problems with identity and fitting in. Her community is small and nearly all white, so she and the few other Asian teenagers stick out a lot. But her biggest problem comes when a woman reads her fortune through her belly button and predicts that she will end up with a white guy, which sends her mother through the roof. She is shipped off to math camp at Stanford for the summer to meet a nice Taiwanese boy and stay out of trouble (or so her mother thinks). But of course, that isn’t what happens. She meets Jasmine, who teaches her that being Hapa (half-Asian) isn’t so bad and goes through the emotional roller coasters that are necessary for all teenagers at camp.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how fantastic the writing was. It’s absolutely phenomenal and draws you in. You can’t help laughing at the humor (of which there is a lot) and feeling exasperated right along with Patty at the ridiculousness of things that happen. One of the things I liked was that we always get enough context so that even though we see everything from Patty’s point of view, it is clear to the audience when she is being dumb (and sometimes she is). The “Mama Lecture Series” was one of my favorite parts of the book. It was her way of denoting when Patty’s mother had launched into a lecture that Patty heard over and over and the introduction was hysterical, something every kid (even non-Asian ones) will be able to relate to. One of the most difficult situations in the book was very early on, when a classmate literally spits on Patty after throwing a racial slur at her. Headley handled the situation perfectly. Every character reacted exactly the way real teenagers would – by standing there in shock as the bully laughs thinking he’s been brilliant. No one says or does anything because they are too surprised to do or say anything and once he drives off and the moment of shock passes, Patty just sinks knowing that there’s nothing she can do about it because of who he is (his mother is on the school board), so even if she reports it there will be no consequences. And she is frustrated. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. You felt frustrated and angry and helpless right along with her.

The weakest parts of the book were the white girls Patty encounters. First there was her friend, who kept saying “that’s so Chinesey!” and generally was just very annoying. I was very happy when Patty left for camp and she was out of the picture. At Stanford, however, we are introduced to Katie, a spoiled rich brat who Patty calls “Malibu Barbie” and who, for all intents and purposes is Barbie. She had no depth at all, which really stood out next to the incredibly interesting Jasmine and Brian. She was a perfect stereotype and neither the author nor Patty ever made any attempt to go any deeper with her. She really had no depth. She was there to be hated and nothing else. Now, I’m ok with a character like that in many books, but this book was supposed to be about breaking through stereotypes. I was just a little bothered by the walking talking bitchy Barbie stereotype stomping through the middle of it distracting me from the otherwise very solid message-sending book.

The best part of this book was the focus on language and words. It was wonderfully subtle, but definitely present throughout the beginning and most of the middle. It wasn’t until maybe three-quarters of the way through that I figured out that labels and words had been the whole focus of the book all along. From the very first line Headley played with the way people label themselves and others, with a heavy focus on labels for Asians and partial-Asians. She did a great job of weaving that idea throughout with the exploration of the word Hapa and the labels Patty had for everyone from the “China Dolls” to herself. I even liked how she worked in the “naming lab”. It all worked together really well.

Overall I was quite impressed with this book. I wouldn’t say it was one of the best teen books I’ve read or anything, but it was definitely solid and had a lot going for it. It certainly had a lot more substance and more to think about than a lot of what is being offered for teen girls at the moment. Patty was a real, interesting character and I enjoyed reading about her. I would love to read more from Headley and look forward to seeing what she comes out with next as I think her work will only get better, and that bodes well! I do certainly recommend this book to anyone who thought it sounded at all interesting.